City Life: TOKYO: Pizza greets the Diet's new dawn

WHEN THE Japanese parliament held its first ever British-style Prime Minister's Question Time the other week, the excitement in Nagatacho, Tokyo's equivalent of Westminster, was palpable.

On the television news, presenters explained the background to the British system against film footage of a finger-jabbing William Hague and a sound- track of baying back-benchers. Newspapers editorialised about their hopes for a new era of accountability. Finally, the two antagonists stepped up to the podium.

On one side was the Democratic Party leader, Yukio Hatoyama, the most prominent among Japan's reformist politicians. Locking horns with him was the Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, known as "the Ox" for his unflappable stubborness. For the first time, a Japanese PM would be facing questions without prepared notes and without knowing the question in advance. What thunderbolt would Mr Hatoyama hurl? Like a gladiator in the arena, he fixed the Prime Minister in the eye and spoke.

"What did you have for breakfast this morning?" he demanded, adding. "I had pizza." Swift as a bullet train, came the answer. "A Japanese-style breakfast," retorted Mr Obuchi. "Not pizza."

For nearly half an hour, the exchange continued, a Pythonesque jumble of meaningless questions, fumbled answers and missed opportunities. Even Japanese MPs seem to agree that, so far at least, Japan's experiment with British-style debate has not been much of a success. "Compared to Westminster or the US Congress the Japanese system is very weird," says Taro Kono, a junior MP in Mr Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party.

"Parliament is not functioning, and these changes have the potential to be important. But we're just not doing what we're supposed to be doing. Hatoyama's first question was a big disappointment."

In the 19th century, the original Imperial Diet was modelled on the Houses of Parliament and, superficially, Japanese and British democracy have plenty in common - prime ministers, cabinets, upper and lower houses. But beneath Japan's parliamentary veneer hums a very different political machine.

"It's just like the old Communist system," says Mr Kono, who lived in Poland during the Eighties. "It's very ceremonial, everyone knows the result beforehand, and the real power broking goes on deep behind the scenes. I used to tell my Polish friends that they didn't have a democracy, but these days I wonder whether we do either."

The real business of Japanese politics takes place not in Nagatacho, but in Akasaka, a neighbouring area of expensive restaurants and exclusive geisha houses.

It is here that the leaders of Japan's parties meet to hammer out policies which are smoothed out and drafted into law by bureaucrats, and rubber stamped in the Diet. "The Diet is just a ritual," says Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of politics at Hokkaido University.

For politicians who have never drafted a law or posed a parliamentary question, there is a lot of catching up to do. A former civil servant named Masao Miyamoto published a famous expose in which he recounted a conversation with a senior bureaucrat.

The man explained that politics was simply too important a business to be left to politicians. "Can you really imagine today's lawmakers entrusted with the job of lawmaking?" he asked. "It would be the end of Japan!"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world